Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Annunciation

I had a space in the morning so dipped into the Metropolitan, and chose the Northern Renaissance in order to stop being overwhelmed.

I spent my time with two Annunciations by Hans Memling.

They are calm and intimate. In both, Mary demurrers her assent by pointing to the book she is reading, implying it is written, I can do no other. But she could. She is a free agent.

The story needs its wonder restored - what is it that moves this particular woman to accept the divine burden, what is it in her that gives the divine birth?

This mystery is only driven back by her own stainless conception! Is it simply that the divine son must arise out of a pure consciousness. It is not assent that Mary offers but recognition that the angel brings. She is recognized as a sign of the purity of consciousness that gives rise to divine incarnation. If we wish to be newly born, it is the creation of a vessel that can bear that truth, that is required of us.

The sadness of the story, as now enshrined in dogma, is that it is made 'special', 'distanced' not a celebration of who we are but of who we are not. This event is uniquely different, it says, rather than an offer of our own uniqueness in its imitation.

It is curious, the arising of this 'double-bind' in Christianity (indeed in the all three religions of the Book). This is who you are it declares with one hand, God's restoration of humanity, while taking it away with the other declaring this as an historical event uniquely separate, not for you, a God bearer. From a historical position, this makes sense, from a mystical one none!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lemming anxiety

I remember a cartoon of a small furry animal sitting on a psychtherapist's couch, looking anxious, and saying to the therapist seated behind him, 'Depressed, depressed, of course, I am depressed, I am a lemming'!
I was sitting watching the people throng the streets need Grand Central Station, New York, enjoying the first real sun of Spring and the opportunity of sitting out on the pavement (as I was) talking, eating and drinking. It was a vibrant city scene.

But I had a jaundiced day, was feeling confused and uncertain, and so had come out to relax and brought my current book for company, that and the opportunities to people watch, over a glass of wine.

Mistake! The book, Gavin Francis' 'True North', which is excellent, was 'now' in Greenland and he had reached a point where he touched on 'the canary in the cage' - Greenland's retreating glaciers, sliding ever more energetically into the sea, the Artic's signaling of climate change; and, his own complicities in this very journey reliant on plane (not for him, probably wisely, St Brendan's calf-skin boat, one of the explorer's whose lives he vividly recreates).

Suddenly this stark reminder, and my own mood, reminded me of the cartoon and now we were all lemmings slowly massing to our own collapse!

If there was a moment in the day that captured it, it was a casual remark from my companion that yesterday the building we were in had been pouring out heat, today they had switched up the volume on the air-conditioning - anything but design a world that sustainably responds to its environment, anything but perhaps be sensitive to our environment.

And the canary keeps warbling and we march on mostly obliviously and even  when you pay attention, as I do, you find surrendering your hypocrises remarkably difficult - the lemming is fated (according more to legend than biology, I think), we are not but we do behave as if we are! Beyond collapse making it necessary, I do not know how to shift my own pattern let alone anyone else's!!!

No wonder I am depressed, I am a lemming!

On a brighter note, there are always smart lemmings!

Monday, April 25, 2011

True North

True North: Travels in Arctic Europe is a charming and intelligent travel account of one man's fascination with 'the North': once the boundaries of a known world. A world being freshly discovered as shifts in climate open it once more to exploitation - of travel, of transport and of resources - a change that may arrest the slow depopulation of many of the places Gavin Francis visits.

He starts in Shetland (together with Orkney) two highly independent sets of people off the north coast of Scotland (who are decidedly not Scottish) who, however, remain dependent on living in a wider whole (of the United Kingdom). Like the Faroese islanders, fiercely themselves, yet dependent on Denmark for subsidy and opportunities for higher education and employment opportunity. Only Iceland has broken this pattern, having the critical mass for independence, though one now challenged by financial crisis and hoped for European Union membership.

One aspect that I had only barely realized of this history was the intrepid travels of Irish monks in the sixth and seventh centuries. I knew of their penetration around the coast of the UK and into Europe but not northwards to the Faroes, Iceland and possibly beyond. St Brendan's voyage, the account of which is part history, part legend, part myth. It was, however, an extraordinary achievement in an open wooden boat with a keel of leather. A testimony to both faith and curiosity. Amongst the wonders they did see, and described beautifully, was an encounter with an iceberg - a water rooted tower of ice moving with apparent permanency. The legend does suggest that he did find his way to the Americas, centuries before the Vikings.

I found myself contemplating what difference that discovery might have made (either Irish or Viking) if sustained - not an invasion of guns and germs and satisfied religion - but a slower absorption of the gift for holiness or a gift for rugged adventure and the honours of war and trade (or both). Not a United States of America but the growth of something yet different (after all the Vikings were the catalyst for the formation of a proto-Russian state)? A happy fantasy of alternate history...

It is touched on, very lightly, by George Mackay Brown, that fine Orkney writer, in his novel, Vinland, where the young central character experiences the offer of a life between 'Native American' and Viking only to see it collapse in the inability to genuinely embrace the other, the fear of the new drowning out the wonder.

This a book full of gentle wonders - of natural description, people encountered, legends re-told: an admission to 'the North'!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter

The Killing

                  That was the day they killed the Son of God 

                  On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem. 
                  Zion was bare, her children from their maze 
                  Sucked by the dream of curiosity 
                  Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind 

                  Had somehow got themselves up to the hill. 
                  After the ceremonial preparation, 
                  The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood, 
                  Erection of the main-trees with their burden, 

                  While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing, 
                  They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day. 
                  We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw 

                  The three heads turning on their separate axles 
                  Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head 
                  Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn 
                  That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow 

                  As the pain swung into its envious circle. 
                  In front the wreath was gathered in a knot 
                  That as he gazed looked like the last stump left 
                  Of a death-wounded deer's great antlers. Some 

                  Who came to stare grew silent as they looked, 
                  Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old 
                  And the hard-hearted young, although at odds 
                  From the first morning, cursed him with one curse, 

                  Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah 
                  And found the Son of God. What use to them 
                  Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail 
                  For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot, 

                  Alone, four women stood and did not move 
                  All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled, 
                  The evening fell. His head lay on his breast, 
                  But in his breast they watched his heart move on 

                  By itself alone, accomplishing its journey. 
                  Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge 
                  That he was walking in the park of death, 
                  Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last, 

                  Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself. 
                  They waited only for death and death was slow 
                  And came so quietly they scarce could mark it. 
                  They were angry then with death and death's deceit. 

                  I was a stranger, could not read these people 
                  Or this outlandish deity. Did a God 
                  Indeed in dying cross my life that day 
                  By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

                  Edwin Muir

What I most deeply love about this poem of Muir's is how it captures the wonderment 
of the crucifixion, caught in its complex newness.

Here the man who spoke of God in every action, beyond speaking, is being put 
aside as not meeting our expectation, of offering  a freedom that we cannot bear. 
He must be killedfor being nothing that we can know with our present consciousness. 
We need to step into a new perception, a rinsing of our ways of seeing. But free 
seeing disturbs: 
Of what avail/ For purposes such as theirs? 

Only a faithful remnant stand in stillness: beginning to see, through their despair, 
to the new light that will come. And the stranger passes on in his bewilderment...

Muir's is a 'radical protestantism' . He suggests our acceptance (or rejection) 
depends onthe consent of our own conscience/consciousness of one who 
(in words of George Fox) speaks to 'our condition' not as we live it but as we could. 
In Muir's vision, the church is an 'accidental' reminder of the truth of our 
Christ-likeness, not an essential witness.
It is the wonderment that truly matters, that bewilders us into truth, the truth of
the light into which Christ's heart travels beyond death (in the poem). It is 
the wonderment that invites us to practice resurrection. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nesterov's image of holiness

Today I went to see the Nesterovs at the Tretyakov. 

They are signs of a coherent vision - of a Russia that is holy because it has grafted a Christian spirituality that has humility at its heart onto the spirit of place. The inherently muted tones of the landscape and its simplicity merges with the demands of the heart for coherence and a given openness to place, and to others.

Three elderly monks sit on a tree stump at lake and forest's edge greeting a fox as he emerges, without fear, from the trees. In their vision paradise is restored and one of the monk's looks at the viewer invitingly asking them to join this reality - to let grace in, grace that configures the world, waiting on our discovery.

But it is a vision whose ideal was undermined by the real divergence between it and the actual contours of religious life in Russia and by darker forces. 

Nesterov survived by retreating into portraiture - the vividness of the person., shaped individual and whole, must stand for the image of holiness now that more explicit renderings had been made dangerous. His art losing its immediate luminosity yet gained a depth of personhood, a more complex humanity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Man in the Castle

Imagine that the Allied victory is a subversive novel abroad in a world where the Axis has won and where the relatively benign occupation of the Japanese is confronted by the next stage of the Nazi horror.

Imagine a cast of 'minor' characters, directly and indirectly, involved in both communicating the German plan of atomic holocaust to the Japanese and sparing the life (from German assasination) of the author of the subversive text.

Imagine a society that takes counsel from an ancient text of Chinese divination that seeks to restore harmony to a world where dark comes perilously close to extinguishing the light.

In this imagination you have many of the key themes of Philip K. Dick's illuminating novel. Most especially it is informed by a traditional religious trope: how do you distinguish the illusory from the real? how do you know that 'this world' is not an imprisonment of the soul, obscuring you from the light? The original Gnostic dilemma.

It is the first of his works that I have read and not the last. It manages to merge its engagement with ideas with the lives of credible characters, living an unfolding set of narratives that strike truth.

I especially liked the twist at the end: the suggestion that despite appearances, the Allies won, not in actual victory but in the real sense that the ideas that inform them remain alive waiting for the current circumstances to turn. Reality undermines from within, speaks truth out of inner consciuosness, it will prevail, even if the world must pass to the brink of disintegration. Ideas, as Plato knew, are alive and beyond the appearances of the world.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Transfigured in Macedonia

It is an unprepossessing building on a hillside, outside the village (that has a new church), overlooking Lake Prespa, whose still waters are shared between Albania, Greece and Macedonia. St George's Kurbinovo is in Macedonia.

You have to wander the village in search of the key as the building is usually locked: the number of visitors small.

It was how I first came to it one September afternoon with the artist, Patrick Pye, and his wife, Noirin. They had come to visit me following Patrick's retrospective in the Royal Hibernian Academy when the Irish art world, entrenched in its secularism (for understandable reasons), decided, after all, that Patrick was a very fine painter, even if he persisted in the pursuit of sacred, Christian themes for his art. But in arriving, that late recognition had its consequences. Noirin took me aside when they arrived and shared her concern that Patrick was feeling 'painted out'.

We spent each day touring in leisurely fashion and the principal focus of our journey was the art of churches - the extraordinary concentration of fresco art that Macedonia contains from the 10th through to 16th century.

Unbeknown to us, Kurbinovo was the jewel. We approached the humble building with minimal expectation but it was a beautiful afternoon, with the September sun in slow, slipping decline towards the lake. We stepped over the opened threshold into the gloom but before our eyes had time to adjust, the bustling woman with the key had opened the side door, facing out towards the lake and the light.

The church was flooded and we were stilled into silence. You stood among saints (literally around the walls were the figures, virtually life size, of assorted luminaries) and you looked towards the eastern arch and there was Mary and her Son, framed by the Annunciation. Her acceptance framing the born result of that offering. It is hauntingly beautiful. The more formal, rigid Byzantine style has given way in this thirteenth century art to a new humanism (parallel with Italian experiments, Giotto coming foremost to mind). We do not know the artist except through his works nor in a sense need we: it is all here.

You could not help thinking were this Italy, you would be sharing this moment with a parade of others and the church would be 'adorned' with all the trappings of modern tourism. Here, now, there was simply us, enjoying the feast and the stillness.

The art was restorative - I think all three of us not only recall this trip with deep gratitude, we look at it, even today, from a perspective several feet off the ground, as Noirin put it! For Patrick it gave him new imaginative material, a whole tradition of making, and of wrestling with the sacred made visible, that was inspirational. My only claim to the history of art may be as the instigator of that visit -and what a subsequent gift has flown out from Patrick's art.

This Transfiguration of Patrick's is an example. It is a theme he has returned to repeatedly both in practice and in thought. That moment when the disciples discover who the man truly is with whom they have laboured and traveled and, mostly failed, to learn from. For an artist it is perhaps one of the most tantalizing of challenges: how do you make the intangibility of mystical experience real, when the disciples are gathered in that light that casts no shadow, that is promise and seal of His and their true nature.

Kurbinovo as a whole is a witnessing to that nature: stand here, it suggests, within the enfolding panorama of THE story of humanity's re-birth in Christ and be re-born, as we are amongst you the figures seem to say, so you are amongst us, wake to it in our light.

As the light flooded the church that afternoon, you did feel as if you had glimpsed a restored world, a paradise, if only for a moment, but then, as the poet asks, how long does a moment last?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Burra illuminated

Skeletal figures in a bare, unfeeling yet sacred building stare into the grey ground in which rests a stripped skeleton like themselves yet without animation. Death as actor peers down at death as end.

This extraordinary dual painting by Edward Burra was completed in 1940. It speaks of its time when death stalked the world meeting its products everywhere. Both paintings are in Tate Britain's new 'Watercolour' show that wishes (and successfully) shows that watercolour is a diverse medium of great versatility from the particular clarity of illustration (with beautiful examples of flora and fauna painting) to the visionary haunting creations of Burra.

Looking at Burra this time (there are three more: Soldiers at Rye, Mexican Church and a landscape of Northumberland of a simple calm and beauty), I was struck again at what a fine painter he is and for all his refusal to discuss his art (or talk fart as he would put it), he is a painter of uncompromising intelligence, within the language of his paint, he knows precisely what he is saying. He can be both politically and religiously astute. Wake captures the reality of what the world had embarked: we had given ourselves over to death and its simple brutalities and to our imaginative wrappings of it. Both are made clear here.

I had not before truly seen the landscape or flower paintings, having been arrested by the figurative, but they are beautiful and celebratory.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A mentor

It was a long cycle ride for tea at the Limes across the Oxfordshire countryside more than twenty years ago.

I was the 'programme co-ordinator' at The Abbey: an experiment in therapeutic living and Christian life that was flawed by two gifted founders with unacknowledged differences of vision (and practice). I was going to visit Michael, one of the Abbey's trustees, to explore future life options. I had an idea for a 'vocation network' that I wanted to try out on him (that probably required the new social media, then not thought of, to be realized in practice)! We had tea in that unique house, part aged, part creation of Jenny, Michael's energetic, creative and eccentric wife, now sadly dead and we became friends.

Michael helped find me my first real job in the charitable sector with a trust of which he was trustee (and with which I remain connected).

He is now nearly ninety-one, and frail. He complains that his mind no longer performs, and it does spend more time reaching after that precision with words that is a hallmark (and sometimes gives up) but both his interest in you and his questions remain alert and real.

I went to see him this evening and it both gladdens as meeting with him always does and saddens for it is a meeting that speaks of ageing, and the cost of ageing.

I deeply love his 'revelations' - a discovery of a new world most notably granted to him through music. I remember him returning from an intense weekend of listening to Oliver Messiaen music and he had been transported - both in his appreciation and within the dimensions of grace that Messiaen sought.

He is open to such gifts, carrying a discovering, inquisitive wonder with him that remains, if subdued by the inconveniences of age, still real (as this evening's conversation continued to illustrate). He confessed once that, unlike the presumed common pattern, he became more, not less, radical with age.

You cannot leave such encounters without a sense of the sadness of passing time, of the inrush of memory, and yet too with hope of the continuance of a graced, befriended existence that lives vividly still.

I found myself recalling a vivid conversation on Tarkovsky. Susan Fleetwood, who had acted so consummately well in Tarkovsky's last film, The Sacrifice, had been the long term partner of Michael's son, and he shared her stories of acting under the demanding gaze of this genius and I of my encounter with the said genius in London.

We both recognized in him that extraordinary quality of embodied stillness of allowing an image to be itself and speak reality (not to stand as a symbol pointing beyond itself but to 'be' and be translucent to transcendence). I remember him being asked why rain figured so prominently in his films, what did it symbolize? 'No symbolism,' he replied, 'just rain'! What does it require of us to experience 'just rain' in all its naked suchness? It made Tarkovsky the most musical of directors where the image is the struck notes in combination, utterly themselves in composition, rather than standing in for something else, understood on their own terms. I arrived at Tarkovsky by painting, Michael by music and we illuminated each other's understanding beautifully.

One of many conversations - from the mystical to the practical demands of a charity's organization - that I trust will continue long, even with the accompanying challenges of an ageing frame.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A novelist of domestic tragi-commodies

In her 1946 novel, The River,  the author, Rumer Godden,  describes her heroine's response to writing a poem she knows to be good: "It felt alive, as she did. She felt alive and curiously powerful, and full of what seemed to her a glory."

They are hallmarks of her own writing. She said she often came to the precipice of melodrama or unalloyed sentiment but stepped back. She stepped back into a clear eyed vision of how people relate to one another within the microcosm of families or enclosed communities (two of her novels are famously set  in convents) and between cultures - most commonly that of the English and of India. 

One of her favourite patterns is of the transition between childhood and adulthood, when an event and its unfolding consequences, often tragic, propel a child into a new maturity. She has a mastery of depicting how children see the world and how they oscillate between their own and an adult's world, learning to comprehend.

In 'Breakfast with the Nikolides', Emily, twelve, confronts her mother's failure to tell her the fate of her dog (it has had to be put down because of the possibility of rabies). Her mother is emotionally fragile, estranged from her husband, and in fear of India. She chooses the path of white lies and deception and is greeted by the imperious hostility of her daughter's refusal to know anything but the truth. It is Emily's moment to stand out alone against the possession of her mother and she does and breaks it.

The irony is that this unfolding domestic drama, amplified only in their own eyes, unfolds against the background of both a misunderstanding between the two cultures (English and Indian) in which the Indian character, Anil, has, in fact, been bitten by the dog and contracted the deadly hydrophobia.

It has many other Godden trademarks - servants who follow their own will, lyrical descriptions of the festivals of Hinduism, the celebration of poetry (Anil is an aspiring poet) and a limpid description of its nurture and a quiet insistence on a reality within and beyond all things that is divine and 'bigger' than any one tradition. They may point, they do not encompass.

I love her novels: starting from that last point. Her celebration of a mystery, celebrated, experienced that can be incorporated in the poetry of being lived, the rituals of everyday and of everyday religion, but which are always bigger than any formulation. She is, in modern parlance, a universalist that all authentic traditions point towards the sacred yet the sacred eludes all traditions. There is more to be discovered, revealed. It is not perrenialist that any authentic tradition is a full embodiment of the truth for the truth can never be fully embodied in a tradition, only in a living. It is where I stand: in happy, exploratory bewilderment.

I love her compassionate realism. She spares no one insight into their unfolding character, light and shadow both, but they are all embraced in a knowing forgiveness that sees how we come to be and always offers hope of change. As long as we live, our characters are not fixed, change comes from an intimate dance of the fated circumstance and our abiding ability to make it our own, accepting new life through it.

I love too her humour. She laughs with her characters: we carry with us multiple foibles, eccentricities and these colour us and colour our seeing, without stepping into them, with celebration, we never become fully human.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Double identity

Christopher Isherwood was once trying to persuade a Jewish friend that as both members of a minority, persecuted by Hitler, they should make common cause for liberation. His friend replied, 'Yes, but though Hitler maybe killed 60,000 homosexuals, he killed six million of us"! To which Isherwood's reply was, "What are we embarked upon? Real Estate?"

A common fact of persecution is not a common bound.

This is more complicated if you are a member of two minorities, the majority of whose members carry the same hostility to your second minority membership, as the wider majority.

This afflicts Perry, a gifted art student, black and gay, making his own way after his parents have disowned him, in the interesting,  but flawed film, 'Brother to Brother'.

We watch Perry in his 'black cultural studies' class try to bring his own minority perspective to bear on the questions of black identity being discussed only to be rebuffed. He has betrayed that black identity in his perversion (a perversion that we know the mainstream projects outside itself - in Africa homosexuality becomes in this hostility a colonial, white import - all evidence to the contrary). His only ally is the sole white classmate, who is gay, but his attraction to Perry is wrapped around his own, wished for identification with black minority culture.

Into this challenging confusion steps Bruce Nugent (who was, in fact, an historical figure, fact is about to blend with fiction): a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s - poet, performer, painter - and gay.

It is this cross-generational friendship that helps Perry step out into self-discovery, and the confidence not to sell himself short to either world, whatever the cost, either to slip out of the 'black world' as a 'young gay black artist' in the mainstream culture or to deny his minority status within it.

Nugent does this by describing his own pathway as the unashamed bohemian, never disguising his sexuality, never selling out the integrity of vision to any party to make it acceptable. It has been a hard life but one lived in celebratory integrity. In the process we get 'flashbacks' of some of the key figures of the Renaissance and their struggles to work within circles of minority.

The films flaw is that it is to didactic, and the characters remain ciphers of the situations depicted, themselves illustrative of ideas.

But it remains both a fascinating glimpse of history - there is a wonderful documentary moment of James Baldwin being interviewed on the complications of being a black voice undermined by people's perceptions of his sexuality - and raises good questions about where does one belong? Can, in fact, one belong to anything other than oneself, rooted in the integrity of your own aloneness? Or rather is it that the only safe freedom to engage compassionately with our potential identities comes when, in fact, we are free of them. Then we can play with them (seriously) and gather meaning from them, always knowing we are beyond them.

Bruce Nugent was free to be a radical, if marginal, black voice because he was so determinedly his own man.

Who asks this thing? by Richard Bruce Nugent

I walk alone and lone must be
For I wear my love for all to see--
It matters not how close our hearts appear to be
Since I tell my love in song for all to know--
Love must not be blind or small or slow,
But that I wear my heart for all to see
Means I am bound while he is, sadly, free.
He walks alone who walks in love with me

Saturday, April 9, 2011

If you go down to the woods today...

This the chapel/meditation space at the Forest of Peace (in Sand Springs, near Tulsa, Oklahoma) that is an ashram modeled after that founded by Father Bede Griffiths in India.

It is set in a beautiful ground of trees that stretch out and down towards the Arkansas river. While being a Christian place, it quietly, symbolically embraces the signs of other traditions, fingers pointing to the one light that transcends all, what that remarkable German mystic, Jakob Boehme, called the inner centre that embraces all outwardness.

It is a beautiful, peaceful spot, and I have sat there in silence, singularly and communally, for many hours but it has always been the woods that have been the space of greatest peace - to step out into them, walk and wander, lose oneself in their mixture of light and shade, to sit still, look out and down at the distance river, restored to a sense of unity.

I was thinking of this as I walked among trees this morning on the Welsh borders, wondering why it is that for me this is 'my' space: my 'desert' is a wood!

This beautifully chimed with my reason for being there - picking up a painting that I had bought last autumn, and had now finally found time to collect. It is entitled 'Conigree' by the painter, Andrea McLean (

Conigree is both a particular wood (near Ledbury) and naming a wood that is known (and preserved) as a place where rabbits live, breed and gather. Like much of her art it is a complex weaving of particular place seen, of the narratives accreted around and within a particular place:its stories, legends and myths; and, the vision (and dream) of a place.

Andrea has a loving inquisitive engagement with maps - especially those imagined spaces that were the maps of the Middle Ages where both cartography and imagination met.

The painting from a distance is a vivid weaving of colour that solves, as you approach into delicate forms, both natural and ones that suggest a translucence between this world and others - and that each figure might, does partake of more than one world. A young girl stands in the centre, emerging from colourful foliage, merging into foliage, is she a girl in the wood, a dyad of the tree, a fairy playfully transmuting before your eyes. All three it suggests, all possibilities, to the inner eye.

The world is always yielding to its inherent magic, its true imaginative form, as Blake would say, in Andrea's painting. The invitation is always: will your perception go with it, will it free itself into the dance and light.

The Visionary Map by Andrea McLean

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I go among trees

I Go Among Trees
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes, and lives awhile in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me, and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings and I hear its song.
After days of labor, mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last, and I sing it.
As we sing, the day turns, the leaves move.

Wendell Berry 

I sat opposite Wendell Berry, and his wife Tanya, one day at breakfast. It was a conference, the first Temenos conference, and I did not know who he was, excepting that he was one of the speakers - both giving a lecture and a poetry reading.  

I was then (as so often now) in meeting new people, shy, we exchanged pleasantries, forgotten, forgettable though I always recall his sense of rootedness, like a tree, taking nourishment from his place on earth, and sharing it and the great good sense and humour of Tanya, a woman who would take no prisoners. 

I listened to the lecture: electrified. Here was a man speaking sense, beautifully, about the culture that sustains a continuing life on earth and nourishes soul. I bought a collection of his essays - and remember the first I read about a journey to Peru and the significance of potatoes: the diversity of their kinds, how that diversity is rooted both in ecological niche and cultural adaptability; and, how traditional agriculture effective is threatened by the promised efficiency of the new - immediate gain that will disguise vulnerability to future loss.

The poetry reading sealed it. 

This was a man to listen to, and learn from. I have been reading him ever since. 

The shyness has not departed. We met again at the poet, Kathleen Raine's, memorial service, at which he had given a moving address. Again I missed my cue, it was too late at the reception afterward, and there was time only for the renewed exchange of forgettable pleasantries. 

But there is the work: essays, novels, short stories and poems. The poem above is my favourite, one from a continuing series, Sabbaths, when the poet, hearing the church bells, walks contrarily, and steps into nature and its lessons,  a man given to the possibilities of transcendence, indeed Christ, but wary of Church, and a religion inclined to extract us from rootedness in place.

Its resonance is so clear to me - the place one goes to hear one's song is the reality of nature and attentiveness, inward and outward.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Luminous Coast

This beautifully written book is the result of a year's exploration of the author's locality - both actually as he teaches at the University of Essex and in history as the place from which his immediate ancestors come. The given geography is East Anglia: Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

The local is exposed as hiding much that is unknown - geographies unexplored, ways of being and living un-encountered - and much that represents the wild. You do not have to travel outside your immediate geography to a find a world that resists human containment - that goes its own way, often subversively to human purposes. Wildness is a necessary substratum of all that lives.

This is most powerfully seen in the landscapes continuous reshaping by water, a water that refuses to accept the taming of our designs. One of the most moving sections of the book is the description of the 1953 flood when a combination of tidal and climatic factors breached the defences, suddenly and without apparent warning. Hundreds lost their lives, many more were saved often by acts of remarkable courage and native intelligence.

Now with the advance of climate change (and the land's natural sinking in response to changes initiated in the ice age) a new approach has been adopted of managed retreat, allowing new salt mashes to occupy certain agricultural land and create a natural 'barrier' to uncontrolled flooding.

The landscape is always changing and yet not all change is of the same kind - some can be assimilated, fashioning a containing, livable space anew, some is disruptive that undermines its capacity to carry its inhabitants including ourselves.

Along the way we discover much about places history - both human and natural (and that division is interesting in itself) and about the impact of different natures or moods of nature upon ourselves, and vice versa.

It is striking for example to be reminded that (in part) our love of the coast is culturally conditioned. Swimming in the water is an eighteenth century cultural amplification of an occasioned necessity. And we were only allowed to swim without our tops (if men) and in mixed company in the 1930s.

I say in part because there are deeper contexts to be considered - Plato, for example, suggested that children be set on the waves (on a floating shield) as part of their education in truth - but the consideration of this dimension - the mystical - is not the author's metier. Deeply respectful of people's cultures and commitments, he is a scientist, and writes as one, both as cultural historian and as biologist.

I was reminded reading it that in the sabbatical of its creation I lured its author away to visit Tuva (in Russian Siberia, on the Mongolian border) and explore ways of harmonizing traditional life paths and modern improvements. It was a wonderful trip that memorably included a shamans' ceremony and a throat singing concert (on my birthday as it happens). The generosity of spirit and openness of engagement Jules Pretty demonstrated then shines through the book.

The highest testimony must be that the book makes you want to don your walking shoes and set off into the places described to add your own experience and understanding of place to the unfolding narrative.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

July Changes by David Jones

July Changes by David Jones

In spite of the title, this translucent watercolour reminded me of Spring. It struck me today, coming back from Durham, as Spring's stages changed with latitude, brought home its dynamism, the latent energy of renewal.

David Jones is one of those quiet poet-painters whose work sits waiting discovery that in more celebratory nations would be articulated to prominence but here is sadly not.

He remains the best chronicler of the First World War, in 'In Parenthesis' in whose trenches he served - both in finding war's meaning and the collapse of that meaning in the second half totalitiy of its brutalities.

He is an 'historic' painter - even the flowers are chosen for their part in our story: a daffodil is never 'just' a daffodil but a connector of story, myth and poetic accumulation. How does this scene or life speak of our unfolding narrative as people and a transcedent one. What is the language of our effective signs that point to where that meaning sits: in God's lap as its creatort and sustainer.

An unworldly figure, he yet commentates on the world at its deepest level.

The denial of oxygen

Mrs Thatcher of troubled past memory once sought to deny the oxygen of publicity to Republican groups in Ireland who were committing acts of terror both in Northern Ireland and in mainland Great Britain arguing that an essential element to the hoped for success of their campaign was the publicity they received. The only problem with this approach is that those groups represented both wide constituencies and an historic grievance. A reality that ought to be legitimately reported on by the media.

I was reminded of this by the actions of Terry Jones because, by contrast, he is a person who might benefit from being deprived of the oxygen of publicity.  Since he represents no one - his purported church appears to have no more than a hundred members; has no recognizable grievance with Islam: and, has no creditable criticism of Islam (that would warrant anyone listening to him beyond his local bar stool).

Yet his actions have been given extensive coverage that has given rise now to real harm. He has achieved what he has appeared to want: he has become a 'real story' and as a result people have tragically lost their lives.

I hope those who created this non-story are feeling appropriately contrite though I doubt it.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...